Principle Three: Use Active Voice

This article is part of a series of articles entitled 10 Minimalist Principles for Good Technical Writing.

Broadly speaking, minimalism is any style or technique that is characterized by an extreme reduction to necessities and radical simplification. A minimalist is a person who strives to restrict the means and ends required to achieve a goal to a minimum. Applying minimalist principles to writing can support the key objective of technical communication: to enable users to learn and accomplish as much as possible, on their own, in as short a time as possible.

Principle Three: Use Active Voice

“Whodunit?”

Verbs can be used in one of two voices: active or passive. In the active voice, the subject of the verb performs the action described by the verb.

Example:

  1. Passive: You are followed around online and information is collected about your browsing habits and interests. Many trackers and other malicious scripts are blocked.
  2. Active: Trackers follow you around online to collect information about your browsing habits and interests. Firefox blocks many of these trackers and other malicious scripts.
not always a case of simple deduction

When the passive voice is used, the who or what that performs the action is not clear or implicit. In the passive example, users with some knowledge of web browsers will be able to deduce that trackers are the subject of the first sentence (the subject doing the following and collecting information). Yet even if users are aware that a web browser is doing the blocking, it is impossible to know whether the browser is Chrome, Edge, Firefox, or another web browser altogether. Therefore, it is crucial that the subjects of the verbs are named and that active voice is used so that users have all information for the given context (in this case, managing privacy and security settings for the Firefox web browser).

Users are rarely passive

Users interact with products.

Users who read product documentation are users first and readers second. Users are people who need to complete a task or understand the underlying workings of a product. In the context of developing and working with digital products, we talk about the “user interface” for good reason and not the “developer interface” or “writer interface”. Users interact with products; they are rarely passive observers. Likewise, in highly automated scenarios, for example, where data and values are being collected, monitored, logged, tracked, checked, or analyzed, a software application is typically the subject of the verb. In these and other scenarios where it is perhaps less evident that an automated process is in place, users need to know whether the application handles the process and whether or when manual intervention is necessary.

Example:

  1. Passive: Make sure the privacy settings have been made and the virus checks have been run.
  2. Active: Make sure that you have made the privacy settings and that the virus checker has run.
  3. Active: Make sure that your administrator has made the privacy settings and that you have run the virus checker.

The example shows that to be able to state explicitly who or what performs an action, simply rewriting a passive sentence in the active voice is not sufficient. Both active sentences are grammatically correct; however, we do not know which of these sentences is accurate. To use the active voice effectively and provide correct information, a writer needs to know who or what performs an action.

The Adventure of the Abbey Grange
The Adventure of the Abbey Grange

The knock-on effects of active voice

shorter, simpler, and easier to read

You might notice that when you reformulate sentences in the active voice that your sentences become shorter and simpler and therefore easier to read. However, this does not apply to all sentences in the active voice. For example, when the subjects of your verbs are relatively long compound terms, such as “cross-site tracking cookies”, a sentence in the active voice might be longer than the passive version.

Example:

  1. Passive: You are followed around online and information is collected about your browsing habits and interests.
  2. Active: Cross-site tracking cookies follow you around online to collect information about your browsing habits and interests.
less ambiguity and simple word order

Nevertheless, the active voice reduces the ambiguity of sentences and makes the word order of sentences simpler (see also Principle One: Keep Sentences Simple).

A case for passive voice

If the who or what that causes an action is unknown, unimportant, or not relevant for users to understand the meaning of a sentence, it might be appropriate to use the passive voice. In a sentence or clause written in the passive voice, the subject is the recipient of the action of the verb.

Example:

  1. Subject unknown: A large volume of data was migrated.
  2. Subject not important: A backup file was last created yesterday.

To say who performs or what causes an action in the passive voice for additional clarity, we can use “by”.

Example:

  1. A large volume of data was migrated by a third-party company.
  2. A backup file is created by the OpenDox backup tool every night.
“Whodunit” is sometimes not so important.

Both sentences in the example could easily be reformulated in the active voice; however, the active voice would change the focus of the information. In these sentences, it is important to know that something has been done or will be done and not who performs the action.

Active voice conveys a clearer call to action.

As a minimalist principle for technical writing, active voice can be used to maximize the effect of what we want to convey to our users in a simple and direct way. The passive voice is not completely taboo in technical writing; however, active voice is preferable in many cases: to minimize ambiguity and to make users aware of when they need to take action.

Next up:

Principle Four: Choose Verbs with Care

  1. Keep sentences simple
  2. Use parallelism
  3. Use active voice
  4. Choose verbs with care
  5. Negate with purpose
  6. Organize information logically
  7. Communicate visually
  8. Aid navigation
  9. Be consistent
  10. Focus on what is important

About Helen Fawcett:

In a nutshell, I optimize user interface text such as control labels and create on-screen instructions and help documentation for developers & customers. | Helen works as a user assistance lead at SAP SE.
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